By Kelly McCleary
May 4, 2017 - A state senator in West Virginia wants to eliminate enforcement of state mining regulations, a move union officials say could set back miners' safety by decades.
Senate Bill 582 was introduced on Saturday by State Sen. Randy Smith. He proposes favoring federal standards over state standards on issues like mine ventilation, fire protection and accident investigations.
The legislation would strip state investigators of their ability to conduct inspections, instead tasking them with "compliance visits and education." If a safety violation is discovered, investigators would issue "compliance assistance visit notices," instead of citations or fines.
West Virginia led the nation in mining fatalities last year, with four deaths, and has seen two deaths this year, according to the US Department of Labor Mine Safety & Health Administration.
The Senate bill also eliminates the West Virginia Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety, the Coal Mine Safety and Technical Review Committee, the Mine Inspectors' Examining Board, and the Board of Miner Training, Education and Certification. Regulators are stripped of their power to establish rules, but would be able to "study and adopt policies on improvements to the health and safety of the state's miners."
Proposed legislation also lowers the number of times a mine inspector is required to examine facilities from four times a year to once annually.
Smith told the Charleston Gazette-Mail newspaper that he would rather roll back federal regulations in favor of state laws, but said "that's not going to happen." Smith is the chairman of West Virginia's Senate Energy, Industry and Mining Committee. He's also a safety manager for Mettiki Coal, the Gazette-Mail reports. Smith has not responded to CNN's request for comment.
The United Mine Workers of America called the measure "a flawed piece of legislation" that could set back the health and safety of miners "by decades."
UMWA Communications Director Phil Smith said, "West Virginia has been the leader in safety and health regulation and ensuring miners are as safe as they can be." Those high safety standards were born out of West Virginia's painful history of mine disasters and deaths. It doesn't make sense that we can now eliminate those regulations," Smith said.
Smith said he's hopeful changes will be made to the bill as it moves through the legislative process.